Into The Lion's Den

Marjorie Keyantash

© Copyright 2021 by Marjorie Keyantash

Photo of a mountain lion by Wilson Chen.
                 Photo © by Wilson Chen
As a former zookeeper and lifelong lover of big cats, I have recently decided to try my hand at writing out my passion through stories and personal narratives.  It is my hope that my writing will help raise awareness on how to better coexist with these animals, and how to promote involvement in conservation efforts on their behalf.

Just stay calm…stay calm,” I kept telling myself as my heart beat out of my chest. I knew what I was supposed to do. From my years of studying big cats I knew the proper protocol for what to do when encountering a mountain lion but I had never had to put it to the test... until now.

I had always wanted to see Yosemite with its world-class hiking trails, sweeping views, and teeming wildlife. So when my husband John suggested that I tag along with him and his students on one of his class field trips I jumped at the chance. I can still remember my first glimpse of the park from the car as we emerged from a mountain tunnel on Highway 41 and were greeted on the other side with a picture postcard view of the park in all its glory. I marveled at the countless majestic granite walls jutting up from the valley floor which created a mesmerizing backdrop of dramatic rock formations and graceful waterfalls that seemed to disappear into the verdant wilderness below.

After we arrived at our campsite and set up the tents we headed for the trails. I cannot emphasize enough how surreal it is to witness firsthand the beauty of nature unveiling itself so exquisitely throughout the park. From the towering majesty of the giant sequoias and breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains’ impressive peaks right down to the lush meadows and rushing, pristine streams, a picturesque scene awaited us around every turn, ready to show us the wildness and sheer beauty of this natural world in all its glory. Much like that scene in Mary Poppins where Mary, Bert and the kids jump into the painting, I felt like I had just stepped into a picture postcard of this idyllic wonderland.

As our last day of the trip was winding down, John wanted to go on one last hike before dark. After having already spent several hours on the trails, most of the class felt they had had enough hiking for the day and headed back to camp. That left me, John, and one other student, Katie, to continue on. There were reportedly some epic views just up ahead that we wanted to see before heading back and we thought there would be ample time to complete our journey before nightfall. But as the last remnants of daylight began to fade behind the horizon, darkness fell fast on our journey.

As we navigated the trail loop we realized it was much longer than expected; still, we forged on in hopes of getting back to camp without delay. Just then, a misstep on a rock left Katie with a twisted ankle. As John tended to her injury I went a little further ahead, just around the bend to see if I could see any signs of our uphill trail beginning to descend. As I rounded the switchback and ascended the hill, I slowly scanned from left to right with my headlamp. Just then my light passed over a small, hollowed out cave about 10 yards to my left. I could just make out the silhouette of a large feline-shaped face with two eyes shining back at me. There was no mistaking it that was a mountain lion. My heart beat faster and faster as I tried to remain calm and remember the do's and don'ts when encountering a mountain lion. First, DO make noise. I stomped loudly but in my state of panic could not muster up a loud yell. Second, DON'T turn your back on a mountain lion and DON’T run away. I began slowly walking backward toward the rest of my group. Third, DO make yourself appear as big as possible. Okay, here is where I failed miserably. While walking backwards I tripped on a rock and fell back to the ground. Now my adrenaline was officially off the charts, and I was overcome with the realization that I had just inadvertently made myself appear smaller and perfectly prey-sized for this cunning carnivore. In that moment my heart began beating so fast and strong I thought it would beat right out of my chest. I quickly scrambled to my feet and composed myself just enough to continue my backward descent toward the others, all the while keeping my eyes fixated on those piercing eyes emanating from the cave. Each quick and clumsy step I took put more between me and the beast until I arrived back at my group. With Katie now all patched up, we wasted no time making our hasty exit from the trail and back to camp.

The next day, during the long car ride home I sat in the passenger seat and replayed in my head my harrowing encounter from the night before. As I vividly recounted the order of events, from the moment I first locked eyes with the daunting predator right down to my awkward attempt at fleeing from his presence, it occurred to me that, throughout the whole episode I witnessed no aggression from that cat. True, this elusive animal can be a formidable predator when challenged or threatened. Yet he seemed to want nothing more to do with me than I did with him. I had just witnessed first-hand that mountain lions are not always the menacing, ferocious predators they are often made out to be.

The unfortunate reality is that, although scientific research has shown time and again the mountain lion’s importance as a key contributor to the overall health of its habitat, this large carnivore is often perceived as having a negative impact on humans and the environment. The mountain lion’s niche in their ecological community is undoubtedly a vital one, and their removal from it would have negative lasting effects, not only on other wildlife that share their habitat but also on their environment as a whole. By developing a better understanding of their nature and the important role they play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, we can hopefully learn to better coexist with these amazing and often misunderstood cats.

Marjorie was born in 1968 in Williamsburg, Virginia and currently resides in Long Beach, California with her husband and daughter. She has worked in the field of exotic animal care for 17 years, most recently as an animal keeper with the Los Angeles Zoo. Big cat conservation is her passion, and the inspiration behind her decision to become a wildlife conservationist. As a recent graduate with a Masters in Conservation Biology, it is Marjorie’s lifelong goal to raise awareness of the plight of the big cats and explore what can be done to ensure their stable populations.

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